Downtown Development ReduxMay 29th, 2012 | By Mike Schwartz | Category: Essays, Features, Front Page
A discussion of the viability of Elizabethtown’s central business district appeared in the Elizabethtown Journal in July of 2010 (http://elizabethtownjournal.org/?p=2087). Included in that discussion was an assessment of the current state of affairs, problems confronting development efforts, and some strategies for future development. Since 2010, the Journal has not revisited this matter. Although interest in downtown never departs from the public consciousness; it recently has received some renewed energy. This, in part, is due to the formation of a new business group, Market Street! Improving Business, and several community-oriented web pages. Consequently, it is an opportune time for the Journal to revisit this issue.
In the 2010 forum it was suggested that the Elizabethtown community would be best served by employing a “programming” development strategy in the downtown area. The goal of employing this method is to hasten the development of a retail niche for the business district. In the “programming” method public (or private) assistance favors specific types of retail businesses over others. This method is the fastest and most reliable path to creating a retail niche. It also is the most reliable method of assuring that downtown development reflects the interest of the community-at-large. Once the number of businesses of a specific type reaches a niche threshold, public support can be reduced. At that point, the advantages of agglomerative economies in the unsupported market will continue to develop the niche. This is not a simple or an easy endeavor, however. Issues of fairness, proper identification of community interest, funding support, and other issues all contribute to making this agenda a difficult one. Nevertheless, if the development goal is to establish a sustainable retail business district that serves the interest of the local community; then this method is far more effective than traditional methods that focus solely on infrastructure development and general business support.
Unfortunately, the outlook for instituting such a plan is not an optimistic one. In addition to the technical difficulties mentioned above, the method requires that one of the following be present:
- Significant public support,
- A single developer interested in many properties and/or businesses, or
- A consortium of developers or development groups working to develop a single plan.
Given the current state of public finance, the first is very unlikely. Unless someone with a keen local interest is identified, the second is also unlikely. The third is the most likely of the three, but additional organizational problems accompany this strategy.
In the section that follows, a description of a niche suitable for the Elizabethtown central business district is presented. It is offered as a description of an end-state and it does not include any process details. Those details are arguably the most difficult part of the plan to develop. In fact, when one considers the details, some or much of what is presented may appear to be nearly impossible to achieve. As a consequence, the description below should be considered only an example of the potential of niche development. It is presented as an elucidation of method rather than a presentation of actual content. It is primarily intended to serve as a departure point for discussion.
In the 2010 forum it was suggested that the a downtown providing the retail needs of daily life is beyond resuscitation. There are many reasons for this. These include the popularity of big box stores, the emergence of larger supermarkets, the decline of single-screen cinemas, the consolidation of pharmacies into retail chains with convenient parking, the decline of the five and dime, the emergence of shopping malls, the increased availability of private transportation, and the emergence of life styles that are more cosmopolitan and less local. These forces are very strong. Although the era of the traditional downtown’s viability has passed, it does not imply the death knell for all community downtown retail districts. A niche oriented retail district still has the potential to flourish.
The question then is, “Which niche?” Among the easiest niches to develop is an entertainment and dining niche. This is a niche that benefits greatly from economies of agglomeration, even on a relatively small scale. Additionally, patrons use these services in a leisurely rather than a hurried manner. This can contribute to the success of proximate retail establishments that offer unrelated goods and services. Crafts and art-related businesses are a good choice here, since there is an entertainment value to shopping this sector. Retail shopping malls are able to establish themselves as a “destination” by virtue of their sheer size and the variety which they offer. For smaller retail agglomerations, this is not an option. It has to be achieved by programming the compatibility of retail establishments and developing a niche. An entertainment district has a good potential to emerge into a regional “destination”.
Geographically, viability is optimized if the targeted market includes both the local community and outsiders. It is important to note that the targeted market considered here is in reference to the business mix as a whole and not to individual businesses considered separately. Developing an identifiable niche is the predominant requisite of capturing a regional market. An identifiable niche is essential to making downtown Elizabethtown a destination.
The local market requires special consideration. It was previously stated that the downtown should be developed in a fashion that meets the interests of the local community, not just the business community. This is important for without embracing it, there is little reason to afford more attention and resources to the downtown area than to other potential retail districts. Accommodating the local community answers the question, “Why downtown?” The interest of the community-at-large is twofold. The first dimension of local community interest is a downtown that can be used on a fairly regular basis. If the drug store, the 5 and 10, and the grocery store are not in the cards, it will require considerable forethought to plan a business mix that includes businesses that can be used on a fairly regular basis. The second dimension of the local community interest is developing the downtown area in a fashion that that helps define the community, that is, it becomes a signature for Elizabethtown. Having this signature is an important part of the local culture and is a contributor to a sense of community. The development of a niche will not only make Elizabethtown a destination for those outside the community, but it will also provide the signature that helps local residents identify with the community.
It would also be prudent to include businesses in the plan that target teenagers, young adults, and retirees. Such a strategy is likely to put more people on the sidewalk and to have the area used throughout the day. Having an active sidewalk culture is a significant contributor to identifying Elizabethtown as a “place” and will go a long way to constructing the signature that is Elizabethtown.
What businesses should be planned into the initial mix? The choice is relatively, but not completely, an open-ended one. Given that the choices are many, the suggestion below is not meant to be binding for the plan. What is most important here is how the businesses complement one another and how, when considered as a whole, the mix creates a niche and a community identity.
- A low-capital business that can contribute significantly to the sidewalk culture is an organized street vendor business. Street food is the easiest, but not the only, choice here. A variety of carts offering big city street food is the natural option. This low-capital business might be appropriate for a single community-committed owner. Retirees or students can service the carts as employees or lessees of the carts. If public support is offered, the endeavor should be managed so competition with other food establishments is minimized. This business requires minimal capital for startup and capital equipment can be liquidated easily if the business dissolves.
- Rooftop entertainment can contribute to a special signature for Elizabethtown and punctuate the niche definition. If several businesses can be developed as rooftop businesses, then this feature is quite likely to become the special feature of the business district that differentiates it from others and, concomitantly, it will become a defining part of the signature and the niche. Rooftop miniature golf and rooftop dining are proven enterprises. Although rooftop miniature golf exists mainly in resort areas, it has a tremendous appeal for the goals of this plan. Downtown Elizabethtown currently has many flat roofs, which may be an advantage toward the improvement and redevelopment of some properties.
- Restaurants are the lynchpin of an entertainment niche. The critical challenge for a development plan is how to combine individual businesses symbiotically to create an identifiable niche. One option here might be to solicit international cuisine startups to create an international restaurant row. This would differentiate Elizabethtown from other restaurant rows in the region and, consequently, add to the definition of the signature and niche. The recruitment of businesses may be enhanced by developing a community liaison group with a nearby culinary school. The community liaison group can offer reduced labor cost for business startups and training sites for the participating school.
- Many small businesses can be enhanced by the development of sales and marketing cooperatives. There is a substantial history of cooperatives in the crafts industry. Craft cooperatives provide opportunities for businesses too small to develop brick and mortar retail outlets. They also provide a more rapid turnover of retail products which will contribute to the continual flow of patrons.
- Partnering with Elizabethtown College to create a low-capital student-run community business may be possible. The business would then serve as a classroom and laboratory for business students and offer for-credit and for-pay employment for students. The advantage of this to the development plan is that it would put more college students on the street. One model is a cooperative endeavor that includes private capital. This model can provide profit for the private capital while the college assumes some of the risk for red ink in exchange for the teaching opportunity.
- As patronage of the business district increases, nearby public space and parkland may be incorporated into the plan. Special events can enhance patronage of the business district and patrons of the business district can bolster attendance of the events. Of special interest are the fields behind GEARS. This area is adequately buffered from residential areas to support nighttime events. Increased usage of these spaces may accelerate the existing proposal of integrating the public lands that run along the east-west axis of the borough.
The plan described above, although incomplete and perhaps whimsical at times, is intended to stimulate thought about the role, the need, and shape of downtown development in Elizabethtown. It is also intended to fracture the box of traditional thought about community development and an invitation to consider non-traditional strategies. Comments and discussion are highly encouraged.